Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
Wipf and Stock, 2014
180 pp., 32.62
David Lyle Jeffrey
Murder at the MLA
The plot of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist centers on the alleged murder of a prominent academic, just after he has given an award acceptance speech at a meeting of the Modern Language Association. Coincidentally, I have finished reading Daniel Taylor's splendidly crafted novel for the second time just as the MLA is having its annual meeting a few miles away in Austin. I am happy to report that the novel is not only more interesting than almost anything likely to transpire at that distinguished gathering but mercifully more accessible than its title and setting might suggest. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess to being a member of the literary tribe by training; I have given just such academic speeches, happily without being murdered for it. But I am glad for many less dramatic reasons to have been home today in my armchair, away from the jostle of politics and posturing proceeding apace just over an hour's drive away. (Cum grano salum, I think re-reading a good novel is almost always a better investment of time than listening to a few more academic papers and speeches.) Yet for me the worst part of the MLA isn't the tendentiously titled papers, mind-numbing as they may be. It comes in between the sessions, seeing the faces of hundreds of anxious graduate students there for job interviews—jockeying for attention, yet with confusion and disillusionment all too visible in their eyes—and realizing that you can't help. Worse still, these harried souls are only a fraction of those who came to graduate schools to pursue their love of literature, "burning with bright hope," in Byron's phrase. Many of their peers have already dropped out, before or during the dissertation, depressed.
In Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, we meet just such a former graduate student, Taylor's protagonist Jon Mote. His dissertation chapters having been repeatedly rejected by his supervisor for being too old-fashioned (i.e., for referring to literary texts more than theorists), he eventually stopped trying. A decade or so later finds him pretty much aimless, trying to make ends meet by doing freelance commissioned research work for lawyers, when suddenly he is asked by the widow of his murdered former professor to be her amateur private investigator into a crime on which the police have made little progress. Haunted by his failures, beset by reflexive incompetence and diminishing psychological stability, but also needing the money, Mote reluctantly agrees. He tries his best to act the part so he can collect the money, but early on is stumped. At an impasse in his search for the murderer—or even a plausible motive—he retreats to the university library:
And so I do what I often do in this situation. I decide to read. Books were an early lifeline, and I turn to them regularly with a certain desperate hopefulness. People talk about reading as an escape from reality—I tend to think about it as an escape into reality. Books aren't an escape from trouble. There's more trouble in novels—and most other books—than anywhere else. Books aren't even an escape from your own particular troubles, because a good book always makes you think about your own life while it pretends to distract you from it.
Here Mote the failed English major pauses to gather his breath and residual sanity for a minute, then adds:
It's just that books suggest the possibility that trouble can be survived, if you know what I mean. Or at least named. Books are more real for me than the rest of my life because they light up more parts of me than the rest of my life ever has. I mean, you can be little more than a damned cartoon figure and get along quite nicely in life—maybe even become president.
As we learn, the primary agent in Mote's being driven away from his early passion for literature is the very professor whose murder he is now trying to solve, Professor Pratt the deconstructionist. It isn't that Pratt had no affection for literature, but rather that he used it primarily for self-gratification, as a means to power. In Mote's description, his old professor loved literature "more like a mistress than a wife." As one might expect, Pratt has had a parade of graduate student mistresses, including one who became his second wife; she tolerated his subsequent serial affairs and now seems genuinely to grieve the death of her husband. That doesn't prevent her from being herself a suspect, along with two department colleagues, and two former graduate students, one of the latter his current mistress, among others. There are complexities to the case that would challenge Chesterton's Father Brown.
It seems to me a risky thing to introduce more than five pages of dreary academic posturing into a novel, yet Pratt's MLA speech is given by Taylor at length. The professor's hackneyed imitations of Saussure and Derrida once might have thrilled much of his audience, but now they're simply bored—they've heard it all before. "Literature," Pratt intones, "is not a testimony to successful communication between lonely creatures. It is the mausoleum of the Logos, the totalitarian word that would organize the universe." Yet if we're ready to dispense with our illusions, ready to "acknowledge that literature offers us neither wisdom, nor love, nor courage, nor home—our nostalgia for them notwithstanding—then we can allow the writer to float freely on the winds of language, taking us everywhere and nowhere." For veterans of the literary discipline in the last four decades, this prattle is only mildly parodic; even Pratt's conclusion that, as a result, "there is no meaningful difference between The Divine Comedy and The Wizard of Oz" will scarcely turn a hair, except perhaps in admiration that discourse so difficult to parody has been captured rather neatly by Taylor. I say "parody" because straightforward imitation would be far too much to induce willing disbelief in 99.9 percent of readers. To give a sample of what now passes for actual academic discourse, here is a passage from a current leading light in the guild, from her book A Manifesto for the Humanities (University of Michigan Press, 2015), for comparison:
Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performative of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar. The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined along the currents of networked relationality, is an ensemble affair. It involves the scholar, the device, the algorithm, the code. It involves the design architecture of platform and tool, the experiential architecture of networks, and the economy of energy.
Taylor's gentle parody is still a risk, I think, but successful in this novel in part because Pratt and his particular twaddle are not the actual subject, despite the academic glamor, attractive wife, pleasant ex-wife, many mistresses, and mysterious murder he has gotten thereby. Taylor's real subject is one of Pratt's more thoroughly crushed victims, our demon-haunted, procrastinating, scapegrace narrator, the hopelessly un-professional private detective Mote, especially as viewed through his relationship with his Down syndrome sister Judy. It is Judy who emerges as the novel's actual light-bearer, the foil to Mote's own species of darkness, and it is her "presence—maybe with a capital P," as Mote admits, which sustains him against his psychotic inner "voices," demons more frightening in some ways than those of Christopher Marlowe or St. Luke. We begin to suspect self-destruction will quite possibly culminate in another death long before Mote's unlikely quest is over.
That said, Professor Pratt's faintly ridiculous trophy speech is important as a moral litmus. One person in his audience erupts in the midst of it, shouting out in protest. She has to be escorted from the room. Later on Verity Jackson, a middle-aged black teacher of writing, tells Mote that what she objected to was Pratt's destruction of life-sustaining stories
by killing words … by denying the ability of words to capture our experience and explain our lives to ourselves. If words are such weak and self-destructing things, then there is no truth, and if no truth there is only power, and we, of all people, know what it is like to be on the receiving end of power.
Her words are echoed by Pratt's colleague and another former teacher of Mote, the still respected though now out-of-fashion Professor Abramson, a childhood survivor of the Nazis in Hungary. Abramson is a man who knows something about the consequences of the demise of truth; his comment on the state of the profession book-ends nicely with that of Verity Jackson: "I have lived under circumstances that make one believe in the categories of true and false, good and evil. Wiping away such categories serves oppression and death." Later he will add, "We have never been so opposed to talking about the moral dimensions of literature, and yet we have never been more moralistic and judgmental."
Taylor is deadly serious about this point—that the self-serving cleverness of academic discourse actually imprisons rather than liberates both perpetrators and their captive audience. He finds this abuse akin to the self-serving distortion of Scripture by wicked fundamentalists like Lester, Mote and Judy's uncle and erstwhile guardian, and the monstrous murders of innocent blacks in the rural South, an instance of which figures prominently in this narrative. Long before his detective work is finished, Mote knows—intuitively if not empirically—a crucial truth about the ethos and subculture created by Pratt and his ilk. Their clever dissembling is NOT just about the kind of linguistic correspondence that canny postmodernist academics try to subvert for fun and profit. Rather, this is about a far deeper and darker moral truth Mote failed fully to grasp while still a student, namely, that underneath the clever game of classroom subversion there is often intellectual cowardice and nihilism—that particular form of self-induced misery which seeks adulatory company and takes its cruel delight in emptying out the possibility of meaning in life for others. Pratt's adolescent participation in a horrible lynching, discovered eventually by Mote (and not only by him), is not Pratt's only wickedness, just his most socially unforgivable one. His cowardice and self-serving complicity in that evil act is spiritually predictive, however, of the intellectual path he will follow.
What Mote gradually learns is that while what Pratt preaches, namely that everyone is to some degree self-deceived, is indeed the case (duh!), some actively predatory people (teachers, preachers, and politicians among them) self-consciously deceive others by manipulation of this universal susceptibility (of which all of us are to some degree conscious and accordingly insecure). This is their MO as con-artists. For a rhetorically proficient academic like Pratt, this is no triumph of genius; it is like taking candy from a baby. Yet theft of the possibility of meaning not only kills joy; repeated, it kills hope, and kills it as dead as the chicanery of smoke-and-mirrors religious preaching or the foul predation of an evil hypocrite like Uncle Lester, who has raped Judy. As we learn of Pratt's sexual predations, we begin to see that Pratt and Lester are two sides of the same coin. They pose as shepherds, they act as wolves, preying upon lambs. To kill hope in the young, at the age they most need it, is a horrible violation: there can hardly be a millstone big enough. That, it seems to me, is a truth in this book which survives the question-begging con-games of academe entirely unscathed. While the reader will need to read the novel for herself to find out "who-dun-it," let me hint: the final exposé of Pratt's death scene would not embarrass Sophocles.
Now here comes a bigger surprise, and for many readers it may be the novel's saving grace. This is not a tragedy. Taylor is a master of humorous monologue and dialogue to put in the company of Mark Twain (an obvious influence, by the way, on both Taylor and his narrator). Such deft humor, its pacing and timing, are obtained only by great skill and a thoughtfully light touch. In fact, this is a very funny novel. The witticisms of Mote, his hilarious self-deprecating humor and satirist's eye for absurdity in the general culture, are all razor-sharp, lifting us up in laughter beyond the searing moral judgments of the story to a hope of better things at last, even for really messed up people. The conclusion is brilliant, entirely counter-cultural, embarrassingly redemptive. It is hard to believe this is a first novel, so masterful is the craftsmanship. You'll want to read it twice.
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at the Honors College at Baylor University.
1. Sidonie A. Smith is Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities at the University of Michigan and Director of Michigan's Institute for Humanities.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.